Tag Archives: mental health

Fanning the Flames

NB: Although I do not know the person concerned here, I was motivated by a strong sense of empathy to write about the situation described in the ensuing paragraphs.I have sought approval from Sabrina Winfield to publish this piece and she has seen it. Therefore, all is sound ethically.

 

Let me ask you a question. What do you think of when you hear the word university? The best times of your life? The place where you might meet your future partner? Where you make friends for life?  Then when you’ve stayed up all night, handing in your essay the next morning like a boss?

For some., that is their experience of University. Lucky fuckers. What about the rest of us?

I’ll talk about my experience more later but let me just say I struggled socially at University. I loved Sociology though, except group work.  Group psychology is king and for somebody like me who prefers a few close friends that’s my worst nightmare. I could hear whispers early on “Oh, they’re a bit weird.”

Film nights and beer were the norm in my flat. Chatter laughter noise and small talk, and being sociable. All my worst nightmares. I’m just not very good at it. I’m deeper. I’d rather talk about important interesting stuff. Art music writing and psychology and feelings. That’s more my bag.

Luckily I had a flatmate who preferred similar and after everyone else had watched the film, I’d often sneak it back to my room and watch it with her instead. I spent a lot of time in my room.

We have recently reconnected on Facebook after a long time apart for reasons which I’m not going to go into here. But we were talking about our University days. We helped each other out a lot mutually. I’m not going to go into her stuff here either. She was in her second year and I was in my first.

She recalls our first trip to the uni bar. She tells me;

“I looked at your eyes. Every time somebody said hello to you you looked as though you wanted the floor to swallow you up!” I rolled them too apparently. She knows me very well.

She was right. The one thing I remember was that one of the tracks on the jukebox was Coldplay’s Yellow. Everybody was chatting and laughing, and I just felt like there was a glass wall between me and them. In subsequent trips to the bar they ended up being rather shorter than they should be. Why? We used to make our own way discreetly back home to my bedroom and talk. I’d rather spend time with a few close friends than a huge group I can’t stand.

Without my friend in the first instance I would have hated University completely wholesale.

What if you don’t meet that ally?

I think it’s fair to say that that was the experience of Sabrina Winfield featured today in Southampton’s local newspaper The Daily Echo.

Sabrina, screamed the headline terrified her housemates with a home-made flamethrower.

Before I get into the issues of the post, I’m not very good with numbers I do words. I asked another friend of mine to go through the article and count for me how many lines and paragraphs it took before we got to any  mention of mental health. The numbers make for sad reading. Mental health was not even mentioned until the 38th line and the 13th paragraph. Put another way mental health was not even mentioned until the penultimate paragraph in terms of the website and on mobile.

Instead we are treated to salacious sensationalist hyperbole. Sabrina went on a rampage. Through a hall, though you would think from the tenor of the article she had rampaged through the entire flat. I have to say at the moment I’m not in a good spot myself mentally, and I have been taking a break from blogging and writing. However, this story made me so angry I had to say something.

I was angered that Sabrina’s housemates were centred in the article.

They were terrified apparently. One tried to climb out of a window during a previous incident.  Whilst I accept that seeing somebody going through a corridor with a home-made flamethrower isn’t something you see every day I thought one thing. What about Sabrina? Let me just repeat that to ram it home. What about Sabrina? What was she feeling? What led her to that point? That’s what I wanted to know. If I was more green and less savvy about mental health I would think that random people just make flamethrowers every day.  It’s what everybody thinks isn’t it? That everybody’s ultimate ambition. It’s what you wake up in the morning and fancy doing. Not reading a book not watching TV, no making of flamethrowers beats all that. But the fact is I’m not green and I am savvy about mental health. I have had mental health problems since I was 16. I’ve still got them.

You see the point is this, the flamethrower, coupled the terrifying of her housemates, that’s the end of the story not the beginning. Nobody just wakes up and decides to make a flamethrower.

The real story is the struggle that led up to the making of this flamethrower.

 

For the switched on amongst you there is another point. Previously police had been called when Sabrina was screaming on the landing and threatening to burn the house down. There was an opportunity here to support Sabrina and get her help.

Instead of squealing about how Sabrina was acting eccentrically why not do what housemates ought to do and look after your housemate? Had Sabrina received appropriate help and care at an earlier stage then my bet is and I think it’s a safe one that the incident with the flamethrower would never have happened.

So why in the name of fuck did nobody try to help then? A hug may have helped, a listening ear or perhaps some empathy. But no people would rather go and have their drink and their dodgy kebabs and ignore the people who are struggling.

University is a highly superficial and highly artificial environment in my experience. Nobody cares not really. For those of us with mental health problems, we are often told you’re too intense, you text too much, I can’t cope with you.

In the social media age too, friendship is bastardised. Your mate is somebody who you met the night before and tagged you in that really awful selfie you don’t want anybody to see. Your mate is the one who drags you to the pub when you’ve got an essay to do. But what about when you really want to talk? When you’re crying alone in your room? In the middle of the night when you’re staring at the ceiling for the millionth time and you really can’t sleep? I was lucky. I had my friend. But what if I hadn’t? I still can’t sleep now though.

The fact is that those housemates were quite happy to talk to the papers and to hang Sabrina out to dry. She is not a hardened criminal. She was not attention seeking. She needed help. I wish she’d been my housemate because I would have been there for her without any preconditions or caveats.

I said earlier that I would not go into my friend’s stuff and I won’t. When she had problems though and I’m not trying to big myself up, I sat and listened for three hours without even peeing. My feeling is that if her housemates could have listened to and heard her which is a perfectly simple act Sabrina would never have come before the courts and could have been treated with appropriateness, courtesy and empathy.  All the things which society by and large is shit at. I am today emotional because before writing this I had the opportunity to read Sabrina’s own response to the events. I learned two things. One thing she has an ace taste in hats which I like. And secondly I learnt about what had actually happened to lead her to this point and if I was furious this morning I’m even more furious now.

The biggest crime of the whole thing? The doorway people yes the doorway!  We’d better think about its feelings and book it in for some magnolia therapy. Doors have feelings and can get traumatised. Didn’t you know? Nor did I!

The fact is the local newspaper would rather listen to those who want a cheap sexed up story lacking nuance and truth rather than the real story of somebody with mental health problems. Through the whole article my head was screaming what about Sabrina herself?

She was just reduced to bit part status in her own story. Objectified and dehumanised As for the comments below the line I’m not even going there disgusting individuals! Mind you they are generally disgusting and have the insight of an earthworm. In fact it’s probably an insult to earthworms to make this claim.

Some would say Hannah why the fuck you getting so angry about somebody you’ve never even met? Empathy, which according to the Guardian recently we are getting very bad at.

You see my first year was fine while I had my friend there. My second year was a blur because a carer abused me. I’m in a wheelchair and disabled so I depend on 24-hour personal care. Much of that year, I spent not in lectures but in bed or in the bar or crying my eyes out to my GP.

She was ace. Also I got therapy with a good therapist Liz.

I had to repeat the year. My best friends at uni then were Jack Daniels, Southern Comfort, Snakebite and weed. But the thing is, I wasn’t like the popular kids, I wasn’t drinking because I wanted to be rat arsed on a Friday night. I was drinking too much. I was drinking to not feel. I didn’t want to think. Other stuff happened too, so Liz and I went through strategies for keeping myself safe. So yes I’ve never met Sabrina, but I feel like I have. From having read her blog, I think that this is why sometimes the best support for mental health issues comes from others who understand. I’ve also been lucky so far with the professionals.

 

It was wrong to describe Sabrina as stupid too. People who have suffered abuse of course are never infantilised and called stupid no. They are listened to and respected as cogent human beings with their own stories. That is of course on some kind of fantasy island somewhere.

 

To conclude then, Sabrina Winfield is far from stupid. She is intelligent articulate, honest and erudite. In her blog which I will place at the end of this article she is honest and frank and doesn’t hold back about her own experience. It is perfectly obvious from reading that what led her to this point.

Her housemates should be utterly ashamed of themselves. I suspect they might feel guilty I hope they do. Let me say that whatever fee they were paid they probably have a nagging feeling somewhere in their unconscious and perhaps in the shadow side that they could have done more because they could.

Mental health should have been contextualised in the beginning, not the end of the piece.

Here’s the thing you see when I saw the headline I knew there was a mental health connection.

Don’t judge a book by its cover. Turn the pages. Don’t leave the person to struggle. Hold their hand. Leaving is expected. Staying is revolutionary.

Let me leave the last words with Sabrina. But before I do I think that Sabrina’s housemates should be ashamed. I believe that people who make diagnoses in comment sections should be ashamed. But I think above all incidences like this are a stain on society. The flamethrower was the crisis point in an ongoing struggle. Not the beginning. Starting at the beginning would be better. Less easy to write and less easy to read. But infinitely better.

“Nothing was damaged and more importantly nobody was hurt. This event has had an effect on my life that has caused permanent casualty to my quality of life, my reputation and my mental health. Whilst the students at *** Road have surely swiftly moved on, I have an on-going hell of troubles to deal with, as this entire situation was a huge misunderstanding and unwarranted, I can promise that. I was not looking for attention as the article claims, I know how to get “that” without being a fucking asshole or hurting anybody.”

 

Sabrina blogs at http://emptybiros.blogspot.co.uk/

 

NB: If you are struggling with mental health problems at University and don’t know where to turn for support, a guide has been produced by the charity Young Minds. This is available at http://www.youngminds.org.uk/assets/0002/7042/Uni_Zine.pdf (Adobe Reader required).

 

 

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Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word

When Elton John opined that ‘Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word’, he wasn’t wrong let me tell you. Sorry is one of those words that is very definite and emotive. We use it in so many multiple situations and yet there is rarely ambiguity inculcated in its meaning.

Here, I do not intend to address the perfunctory sorry which results from somebody being unable to hear what you are saying and making polite if frantic gestures towards their ear. Neither am I talking about the performative sorry that is sometimes said when a child has promised not to eat any more sweets or biscuits, and they are caught red-handed by a parent sporting a chocolate sculpture on their face.

Lastly I’m not talking about a political apology like the one Nick Clegg was forced into after making a U-turn on scrapping tuition fees. The parody video was hilarious but given that many students voted for Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats on this basis, the parody video may have been funny, but the resulting fallout was no laughing matter. The Liberal Democrats paid the price for this with a huge reduction in seats at the last General Election.

But there is another kind of sorry which is altogether more serious. The kind of sorry whereupon you really hurt somebody, and a genuine sincere apology has to come from the bottom of the annals of your heart and soul. It is that kind of sorry which is the business of this post today.

It is very personal to me as a writer, and I suspect very personal to the people who will end up reading it. It is rare for me to write such a directly targeted piece, but in this instance I deem it absolutely necessary. I will set out what happened, why the sorry is necessary, and ways forward which enable I and the people concerned to have a better relationship personally and professionally in the future.

I had always known I was trans, even if I didn’t have the vocabulary to describe it when I was growing up. As the song ‘Who Will Love Me as I Am?’ from the musical Side Show has it “always knew that I was different; often fled into a dream.” This is true and the song itself is very special to me, for it articulates deftly and superbly how I feel about my life.

I was born different anyway. I was born with cerebral palsy three months early. So difference was not an alien concept. I transitioned at 25 with the full support of the hostel where I was living at the time, John Darling Mall and the staff there, many of whom I now count as personal friends, and why wouldn’t you after you’ve gone through such a seminal profound experience together? I was also supported throughout by an experienced counsellor who specialised in gender issues, and she had also been a Special Educational Needs teacher prior to becoming a counsellor.

It is fair to say that I bloomed and blossomed for the first five years of my transition. I began writing professionally, I dressed as I wished and found a home for myself at the local gay club. I continued my passion for theatre and show tunes and general fluff and camp whimsy.

For those who don’t know I did come out as gay at 18, but it just didn’t work. I did try my absolute best to make it work. Looking back, it was kind of like going halfway along the yellow brick road, but never quite making it to Finian’s Rainbow.

So in becoming trans, I realised what I really was. I have a diagnosis of gender dysphoria, with the onset period for this being mid to late childhood.

Through my writing, I attracted the attention of many prominent trans activists, and it is they who this apology post is predominantly aimed at. Writing from a particular viewpoint seems to constitute activism, and the more you write, the more people get to know you, the more people are interested in watching what you have to say but perhaps most crucially to this post the more people expect of you. You’re expected to have an opinion on certain issues. You’re expected to know your way around them and to give comment upon the said issue at a moment’s notice.

As well as the serious stuff, I threw myself into the LGBT party scene, meeting many interesting and colourful people who were and still are beautiful inside and out.

So my writing career was flourishing. I was encouraged and almost indirectly mentored by some very kind people. There was an initiative built around better representation of trans people in the media, entitled All About Trans, run by a company called On Road Media.

I was asked if I would like to participate in what was known as an interaction with other trans friends, between us and the BBC. Although I can’t quite trace back the exact timing, this is when my trans journey began to turn sour and fall apart, all I have to say because of my own actions which were foolish and stupid and I take full responsibility for them.

Suffice to say I bottled out of the interaction with the BBC, which could have been useful to me, given that I was already writing and desperately wanted to pursue a career in journalism, both written and broadcast.

But my Jungian shadow side was coming out to play and nagging thoughts of low self-esteem, lack of confidence and lack of self-belief crept into my mind. Along with these, thought of body hatred and ugliness crept into my mind.

Why would the BBC be interested in you? What have you got to offer? What can you bring to the dialogue?” Also, I was worried I didn’t look as good as the others.

Over time I isolated myself. I began to feel really inferior in comparison to my other trans friends.

At some point I began dialogue with radical feminists. They want to see an end to gender and an end to gender expression. Through a radical feminist prism, there would be no need to transition because everybody could live freely and dress how they wanted.

On some levels, this is a utopian and laudable aspiration. However, its implementation and ultimate realisation as a framework built around society feels more tricky for me.

I will come on to explain why later.

But at the time I found radical feminism, I was at a low ebb in my life. Nobody forced me into anything and nobody forced me to look further into it. I did so freely and of my own volition.

In a sense for me it allowed an escape route from the things I have always found tricky about being trans. Radical feminists were supportive and empathic to me around disability issues for example, and issues around appearance, and my perceived

inferiority. In some ways this isn’t only perceived it is something I still feel quite strongly. Radical feminists too spoke truth to power about doing womanhood differently, free of the need to placate and comply with male expectations.

All this seemed very inspiring to me and I did learn a lot from my time alongside the radical feminist movement.

The main desire of radical feminism is to smash patriarchy – that is to say male dominance and male power structures within society which preclude women from full participation and power in society. Again, this was attractive given I’d been abused emotionally by a man who was powerful physically as he was mentally. I found him intimidating in terms of his height and demeanour.

Whereas many people are comfortable with trans people in society, radical feminists see trans people and the need to transition as a genuine obstacle to ending gender. Some say openly that trans women are really men and vice versa. Moreover, some say that trans women are really gay men and vice versa. But this rhetoric is a sideshow compared to my own issues with trans stuff, which I feel I must lay bare in order that my apology will be sincere and from the heart.

Radical feminists will say that transition and trans people all about dressing up and it is all about focus on the clothes they wear.

Whilst I can attest wholeheartedly there is more to transition, than clothes, make up and other superficial things, the focus on appearance is something I have always struggled with.

When I first started blogging, and when the trans community first got to know me through Facebook, one of the things I noticed compared to non-trans friends was the abundance of selfies trans people posted. I am not blaming them for doing this. That would not be constructive or consistent with the aims of this post. However, the endless stream of compliments based on appearance or fashion choices was often hard to read for me and envy crept in. Envy morphed into jealousy, and jealousy morphed into a real melancholy stubborn sadness that just would not go away. It took up residence in the heartbreak hotel one might say.

Relevant to this in a more overarching sense is my disability. For most people being trans is a monism, it is the main oppression they have to deal with. But for me trans is a dualism alongside my disability.

When seen in the context of this dualism it is not hard to understand why being trans and disabled is difficult. I will try to set it out though as best I can for my own benefit and for yours.

Trans focuses in the physical sense on giving you the body of your dreams, for the male to female trans woman, gaining breasts and a vagina and losing a penis. Being a trans man on the other hand means losing breasts, gaining a deeper voice and gaining a penis perhaps.

But in my case, and in the case of physical disability more broadly, whilst trans focuses upon bodily perfection and looking fantastic, physical disability brings to the fore the imperfect, the damaged and the difficult. This is a very difficult conundrum to live with as a trans person and for the avoidance of doubt I don’t use the word conundrum as a light touch.

So much of trans is imbued with the politics of passing, that is to say looking as much like the everyday woman as possible and avoiding people knowing you are trans. Some people who can pass very well manage to live in stealth which is conducive to this objective. But being a person with a physical disability is not. Due to the need for me, and others to have personal care to various degrees, privacy is non-existant.

Of course there is so much more to being trans than the physical transition and I accept that to some these previous paragraphs may look a little crude both in form and delivery.

My aim in their inclusion though is not to rehearse physical transition procedures. It is something a little deeper. I want us all to think a little deeper now.

Think about it. Trans and disability. It’s a real paradox. And to be honest, you would never sit trans and disability next to each other intentionally in the pub.

The focus on the perfect versus the imperfect. The focus on beauty. The focus on thinness and losing weight. These all present real mental challenges, which are sometimes painful to me at a trans person. Let us take the example of somebody raising money for surgery. They can raise that money and reach their goal, and come to the end of it with self-satisfaction. While I know that no amount of money and no amount of Go Fund Me will take away my cerebral palsy.

And there is too much stupid focus on silly tropes which have no basis in theory or reality. Something like “trans girls are prettier than cis girls” for example may act as a comfort blanket and shield for some but may hurt others who feel they will never reach that standard of perfection. So, there are issues around language and how that impacts upon others. It also gives succour to the idea that trans people are misogynistic. Why provide that ammunition? It is I have to say something of an own goal.

Knowing that my canvas is already damaged and a surgeon will never be able to work on it is a huge source of grief for me. The reason why you would never sit trans and disability down together in the pub intentionally is because there are far more limitations imposed upon the disabled trans person than the average trans person. I know if I was able-bodied and normal in society’s eyes I would have had surgery by now it would have been done and dusted and a part of my life which would have been my history. I also envy trans people who have experienced and those who will go on to experience this reality. Now, it’s a fair comment to say that not every trans person has surgery. This is true. Nobody holds a gun to people’s heads and forces them to have it.

However, I always wanted it. Two buzzwords which often float around these days are choice and agency. To be told you can’t have something is a very different beast from actively considering something and deciding you don’t want to pursue it. When I could see other trans peers actively reaching their goals I was happy for them, but also I had a splash of sadness too.

So in short I decided to leave the trans world behind because the ardent focus on visuals and visual perfection versus the dualism of a deformed and damaged body which could never match up to trans beauty standards was too much to bear. I thought that the best way to cure this would be to aim for a gender free world where would everybody looked like didn’t matter and whatever anyone’s disabilities or abilities were was a mere irrelevance.

But transition rests not only on physicality and biology. There is also a social transition to be made, and that also frustrated me that there was not much discussion of this within the trans community. The visual aesthetic seemed to reign supreme. For more thoughts on being disabled and trans I commend this piece from Medium to you, by Jordan Gwendolyn-Davies. It articulates many of the frustrations I feel on a daily basis.

But social transition is where I come unstuck on the radical feminist trajectory. Whilst radical feminists offer a world where we are free of gender and speak consistently about how wonderful it would be, we are not yet there in present reality.

Therefore, there are still different social expectations placed upon men and women. After being transitioned for so many years (it will be 10 this year, if this temporary blot on the landscape is discounted) it was very hard to adjust to being a man again. I felt like my world had changed from shocking pink to magnolia in 360°. Society is not a gender free entity.

I said that when I entered into the world of radical feminism I was at a low ebb. Trust me that ebb got lower. I don’t blame anybody for this, no individual radical feminists no individual branch of theory, merely circumstance. Social media which had once provided pleasure, now provided only torment and sadness. Instead of using it constructively, I used it to lash out and be nasty to trans people in ways that I’m not proud of, which fell far short of the standards of behaviour I set for myself and others. In a broader sense, I ended up on Mirtazapine, which is a very strong antidepressant drug.

In terms of physical side effects, the main one was weight gain. I’m still not happy about this but there is not a lot I can do. But over time Mirtazapine became beneficial and the fog and misery of depression began to clear. I knew what had brought me to this point of needing a strong antidepressant, and what would pull me back from it. Before I transitioned I was very depressed really depressed. After I transitioned, I wasn’t always mentally stable and I still had frustrations, but I could cope better with daily life and even enjoy it. I am convinced that the catalyst for this was transition. So I knew what I needed to do to pull myself out of the mire. In late summer after not complying with my trans-medical regime of daily hormones, and an injection every 10 weeks, I returned to my GP and asked him to reinstate the medication onto my prescription list. I do take other disability -related medication which is irrelevant to this discussion.

Since then my mood is improved I have improved. I’m 10 times happier finding new people in life to engage with, forging some positive artistic and creative relationships. I have rediscovered my musical and writing sensibilities and feel at peace with myself. I am now happy to say also that my body is a Mirtazapine and antidepressant free zone for the first time in 10 years. I weaned off them gradually under supervision from my GP, following the pattern he set and I am feeling no ill effects. My GP suggests that I have done well to do so.

I would be a liar if I said that nobody has ever de-transitioned. However I’m telling the absolute honest truth, hand on my heart when I say it just didn’t work for me at all. It pushed me right back to square one. In fact it pushed me right back to the time when I was first told at college I needed to take antidepressants by a very empathic counsellor. I’m not saying it undid all the progress along the way for I have always been there. I have always been present throughout in the moment.My indomitable flame and spirit may have faded during that time but they were always there, and I am forced now in a healthier place to re-examine my conscience and my actions during that time.

Depression may provide a rationale for out of character behaviour, however a rationale is not the same as a get out of jail free card.

In ending this post, there are people I would like to apologise to. They include but are not limited to:

Paris Lees – You were one of the first people to see potential in my writing. You were so pleased when I got the article published in the New Statesman just after Lucy Meadows’ tragic death. We last spoke on Skype when you offered me the chance to collaborate with you and Roz Kaveney on a blog version of the innovative and intuitive META magazine. From then onwards I isolated myself and cut people off. I’m sorry for that and would like to work with you again in the future to do whatever needs to be done. Roz, I would like to apologise to you also for discrediting you on Twitter it was disgusting behaviour for which I’m deeply ashamed.

Sarah Lennox – You also believed in my writing and supported it unconditionally. For that I am forever grateful. Along with Paris you planted a seed which let’s face it died for a bit but I hope it can be brought back to life. In a similar vein via you perhaps, I would also like to apologise to Alana and Natalie at On Road Media for letting them down regarding the interaction and not supporting subsequent endeavours.

Natacha Kennedy, Sophia Botha and Sabine – This apology is for the Twitter abuse you suffered at my hands. I apologise for that, I realise it must have caused deep trauma and hurt after you extending the hand of friendship to me. I am sorry I betrayed that trust and hope we can move forward in a spirit of reconciliation if not immediate regained trust.

Sophia Banks – similar Twitter abuse really. I’m sorry for it and will never do such things again, the same goes for CN Lester, and every other trans person I have let down with my actions

This is not an exhaustive list, and if you’re not on it it doesn’t mean I don’t care about the hurt I’ve caused you. This apology extends to you too.

Why I wrote as I did about the difficulties around me being trans and disabled is not to provide a critique of or raise the temperature in the trans community. It is what I should have done in the first place; used my writing gifts to articulate my feelings instead of running away as I did lashing out at people non-constructively and causing a great deal of hurt, anger and upset to people I care about.

A friend feels that I was trying to rid myself of one oppression, given that I can’t in her words un-disable myself. But the strategy was flawed. I just ended up more hurt and more lost than ever before. The absolute truth of the matter is that to me I couldn’t un-trans myself either.

There is much unhelpful language from trans people as there is invective directed towards trans people. Telling women that they are witches and should be burned is no more helpful than telling trans women they are really men.

One of the main reasons de-transition didn’t work for me either centres around socialisation. Much of radical feminist theory is predicated on the idea that males and females experience a different form of socialisation due to the way they are treated respectively.

Now there is no doubt in my mind that women and girls are exposed to a disproportionate amount of sexism and misogyny throughout the life course. This is regrettable disgusting and every effort must be made by Government and other agencies to reduce the grip of sexism and misogyny upon society. Socialisation and the theory thereof suggests that whilst girls are taught to be caring and nurturing, men are taught to be tough physical and competitive. However I think that there is far more variance in socialisation experience than is shown by exploring these two variables in isolation

For example, an only child as I am experiences the world very differently to somebody with a number of siblings for example. Whether a child’s parents are divorced and who they spend most of their time with also affects socialisation. Finally, variables like disability, which may affect physicality also mediate within socialisation. My contention is here there is no one single socialisation as a monolithic boy or a monolithic girl, but instead a plurality of socialisation possibilities for both sexes or neither. This is why radical feminism doesn’t work for me. It limits itself to the binary and the black-and-white at a time when the shades of grey looking increasingly interesting and relevant to contemporary society and Sociology.

Finally, Elton John was right. Sorry is the hardest word. But it is a word worth saying. It is worth saying in order to prove our integrity, sincerity and honesty to the people we care about. Those reading this can be in no doubt that these words come from my heart and are written with the utmost integrity honesty and sincerity in mind.

So What Is A ‘Mental Health Patient’ Costume Exactly?

mental patient costume

The chances are that if you have ever been to your GP surgery and been diagnosed with a chest infection it was a very mundane affair. Of course, as with anything medical there is always the risk of complicating factors and underlying issues being discovered. However, in most cases your GP will listen to your chest and if they find an infection, taking into account your clinical presentation you will be sent on your way with some bacteria killing broad-spectrum antibiotics.

For the patient presenting with mental health problems though, the journey is a harder one. Unlike those with physical problems, patients with mental health problems present with fewer definable symptoms which are suggestive of certain diagnoses.

There are no rashes, no physical pain and no real visual or sensory clues.

What an effective diagnosis of a mental health problem relies upon is a positive professional relationship between doctor and patient, consisting of a willingness to listen, and from the patient perspective, a feeling that their concerns have been heard and understood, they can trust the medical professional, and lastly that they feel empathy has been extended towards them.

Even medical professionals though are not beyond reproach and are not above learning more. Clinical training for the best of doctors should not end when they leave medical school. They should have an appetite to learn something new every day, to be scholars and make a difference to people. In the real world outside of the tutorial or the lecture hall, or even a clinical rotation it is arguably patients themselves who make the best teachers.

Too often in mental health though interactions between doctors and patients fall short of this ideal. My main objective in liaising with clinicians about my own mental health has always been to be heard and understood. But I am lucky. I am articulate, and I can converse well. Mental health patients are often hampered by archaic anachronisms embedded within the clinical system. Here’s a paradox for you. Those working with anorexic patients will always tell them that their disorder is not about food and weight and this is true. Yet simultaneously patients get caught in the imbroglio of the Body Mass Index. After being told that eating disorders are not about food and weight, with the aforementioned acting as a cipher for other issues, people are told that they have to be under a certain weight in order to receive treatment in the first instance. This seems to be counter intuitive at best and dangerous at worst, encouraging a dangerous game of eating disorder Russian roulette. It makes people feel that they’re not sick enough,and furthermore that they are wasting people’s time.

Of course none of this is true, but that is of little comfort to someone in the iron -like grip of an eating disorder. The greatest injustice of all is that this is perpetuated by the very system which people rely on to help them and that is wrong. Without getting past the gatekeepers, treatment from specialists in mental health conditions is just not an option let alone a pipe dream. This too can leave people feeling that they are a fraud.

What I hope I’ve demonstrated so far is that seeking help for a physical health problem is far less daunting than seeking help for its mental counterpart. Outside of the clinical setting, there are also the attitudes of your family, your friends and the wider public to consider. One of the most heart breaking realisations I have come to is that people are far more sympathetic to physical health problems than they are to mental health problems. With a physical problem, say a broken leg people receive sympathy and empathy because it is tangible; people can see it, touch it and relate to it perhaps.

When it comes to mental health problems, people’s first reaction is often to lean out instead of leaning in. Instead of showing sympathy or empathy, they are often nowhere to be seen. There is much stigma surrounding mental health. It is that stigma upon which the remainder of my argument focuses.

Halloween can be a challenging time for people with mental health problems. When I was a child we made pumpkin soup and made funny faces out of the pumpkin skin. But now it seems Halloween has taken on a much more sinister, visceral disguise.

I looked on Twitter the other night and happened upon a retweet from Dr Rory Conn a Specialist Paediatric Registrar in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Great Ormond Street hospital in London, and a Lord Darzi Fellow.

Dr Conn was drawing attention to this vile poster pictured at the top of this piece. The article from the Bournemouth Daily Echo can be found here and a Storify, containing Twitter’s reaction (credit:SectionedUK) can be found here.

Let us take a closer look firstly at the language and tenor of that poster. Even a layperson who is not a linguistic specialist would know that this disgusting advertisement is going to end in tears for Greene King as a responsible company and provider of leisure facilities.

The Broadway ‘Mental Asylum’ promises free shots for participants. The kind of fancy dress they are looking for is for people to dress as ‘deranged doctors and nurses’ and ‘mental patient’ (sic).

According to the Science Museum the last asylums closed in the 1970’s and 80’s. This harks back then to a time when mental health was less understood, and where people with mental health problems were treated as lepers, people to be feared and hidden from society. What is abundantly clear from the actual poster itself is that some of these attitudes still have some currency today and that is highly poignant. Moreover, it is demoralising for those with mental health problems, as well as those who work in the field of mental health either clinically, or in other capacities. It becomes almost an evangelistic obsession; to break down taboos and stigma so that people do not have to suffer in society.

But promotions like the Halloween event The Broadway pub attempted to run are counter-intuitive and reinforce the very stereotypes which clinicians, campaigners and others try to break down. First of all, doctors are not deranged and the word belongs to a bygone lexicon. I don’t doubt the fact that there are clinicians and other people in mental health whose own experiences have driven them to enter the profession. Unlike The Broadway clinicians and counsellors are there to make a difference.

Secondly, where these mental patient costumes you speak of? Do people wear a big flashing neon sign on their head saying mental patient? If so, please send me evidence for it is news to me.

As one tweeter Katie Hodgie enquired, should she come dressed as herself because she has mental health problems? She didn’t realise that she was scary enough for Halloween. I joked frostily that they should offer free shots to all people in ordinary clothes.

That is the crux of the argument upon which this case rests. Aside from prehistoric retrogressive mythmaking by shameful retailers, there is no stereotypical mental patient. Mental illness transcends barriers of sex and sexuality, race, age and disability to name just a few social categories.

A mental health patient could be anyone. It could be me, your best friend, your parent or sibling. It could be your bank manager, your GP, or the person at the checkout when you went to do your shopping. There are no visible signs of mental health problems so therefore anybody you meet today or tomorrow could have one. It is disgusting to cash in on people suffering, verging on the ghoulish and vulgar.

Are The Broadway genuinely so naive as to assume that nobody with a mental health problem visits their establishment? Are they really that stupid?

The fact that the night was withdrawn is a testament to the power of social media, and everybody who took part in the campaign as recorded in the Storify should feel justly proud. The Broadway however, were most unspooktacular in thinking that this cheap gimmick balanced on the backs of those who suffer as a result of mental health problems who have to endure such stigma was in any way a good idea.

The manager of The Broadway, Jay Cutler, quoted in the Bournemouth Daily Echo’s article seemed like a man who had just stepped off a rather scary ghost train, and I quote:

As of 8am this morning all the posters were taken down, we are sorry if these posters upset anybody, it was just a Halloween theme that all of the staff came up with.

The posters have been up for a week, this is the first we’ve heard of any problems and we acted straight away. We took all of them down and will now come up with a new theme.”

Oh the hubble, bubble toil and trouble they must have gone to taking those posters down at 8: 00 a.m. I can’t help but smile a little really. But the response worries me. As somebody who suffered with mental health problems for a substantive part of my life, the response does not elicit feelings of hope from me. The apology seems perfunctory rather than heartfelt. It’s not a matter of simply upsetting people. Furthermore, such a characterisation only serves to trivialise the matter, and implicitly suggest that Dr Conn et al were making something out of nothing.

Secondly I find it troubling that had been up for a week prior to any complaints. What signal does this send about the attitude of society towards mental health? A society high on cognitive dissonance, jet propelled by the rise of the individual; essentially that as long as one is okay in their own skin they do not need to worry about anybody else. Also Cutler claims that this was the first time that been aware of any problems. The theme was problematic from the outset and any good customer facing business should be able to deduce that at the very least. Why did no light bulb come on in Cutler’s own head when the theme was agreed to between himself and his staff? Notably though approval was not sought from Greene King, the brewery who operate the business. I suspect strongly that if they had been aware the theme would never have made it on to the poster.

But even they don’t get away scot free from admonishment. Whilst I’m aware that diversity is an important and noble cause, and one I actively encourage and support both as a woman with a disability, and a trans woman I feel it is irrelevant here. This does not fall under the banner of diversity but insensitivity. Those with mental health problems are not some diverse separate group with their own needs which need addressed. That is not to say that those with mental health problems do not have needs, rather than those needs should be addressed within mainstream society rather than categorised as something separate and other. This only adds to the stereotype of those with mental health problems as something freakish and beyond everyday understanding.

Staff should not be coming up with themes without approval centrally. Marketing specialists know the kind of ideas to sanction and ideas which are best left in the waste paper bin.

I also  blame the retailers, because if retailers did not produce and market these items themes like this would be impossible to conceive. To think that retailers are cashing in implicitly in people’s suffering beggar’s belief in a modern society.

Now, the UK’s parliament can be and ought to be an adversarial bear pit at times. But one of the most edifying and non-adversarial House of Commons debates I can remember is one where MPs met to discuss mental health. There were many distinguished contributions, with some MPs disclosing mental health problems for the first time. Now, if the UK Parliament can be grown up about it, and if the Leader of the Opposition Jeremy Corbyn can appoint a Shadow Minister for Mental Health in Luciana Berger MP, who by the way is already making a sterling mark in the brief then why can’t the rest of society follow suit?

We can feel somewhat naïvely I think that huge progress has been made in the field of mental health. Every time we see a new documentary, a new symposium or a new initiative, such as the new campaign launched by Care Minister Alistair Burt MP and the charity Time to Change, we often lull ourselves into a false sense of security. We think that this means people get it. But the truth is these initiatives are preaching to the choir. We get it, because we’ve always got it. But there is still a sizeable chunk of the population which to put it quite bluntly does not. It is these people such initiatives need to cut through to. If mental health was truly understood, then BBC Three would never need to devote a whole slate of programs to mental health,  and people would not be waiting for huge pieces of time for treatment as highlighted by Liam Fox MP on the Victoria Derbyshire programme this week. Most germane to this essay though, is that reducing mental health patients to a mere caricature, something to be laughed at mocked and traduced would never have entered The Broadway’s theme no brain storming.

As Dr Conn makes plain in his remarks to the Echo such callous ambivalence to mental health problems has direct and tangible consequences. In the worst-case scenarios it leads to suicide, resulting from mistakes and errors sometimes by mental health professionals, but more often the problems begin with society. All people with mental health problems want is a friend, someone to talk not to be solution focused but just to listen and understand. Most often what people with mental health problems want is to be not just understood but to be truly heard. There is a remarkable difference between listening, active listening and truly hearing. I sat and listened to a friend for three hours once. I supported that friend, and I would do it again for anybody. I don’t want to hear endless accounts of people jumping in front of trains or off bridges. That is not because I am dissonant to them. Congruently I’m a highly sensitive and emotional person. But, it is because I want to stop people getting to that stage. I want people to be encouraged by peers to seek appropriate help and to augment their help with love empathy and understanding.

One thing I do know is that we must do better. But the stakes are too high to frame that as some lofty abstract ambition. We must do better, and friends we must do better now. Right now this minute. I wrote a blog in 2013 excoriating the supermarkets for cashing in with mental health problems, after hearing a discussion led by LBC presenter Cristo Foufas on the subject of mental patient costumes. I am furious and embarrassed to find myself in the same position a couple of years later. It proves that nothing has changed. We need to stop preaching to the choir and cut through to those who don’t understand because the stakes are too high and the need is too urgent. Let’s get to work. I have spent enough time with Rogers and Jung to know the benefits of therapeutic support under core counselling conditions. But just because after 16 years I’m antidepressant free doesn’t mean I stop caring. I don’t walk by on the other side. I am also not foolish enough to think that the scrappage of one idea in one pub in Britain means mental health stigma is over. What is saddening and maddening is that there are probably thousands of promotions which are predicated on similar tired boring disgusting tropes. To those who don’t get it, to those who don’t understand I say examine your conscience and walk a mile in the shoes of those with mental health problems. I don’t check my privilege here, I use my way with words to help people who feel voiceless and disempowered in the struggle with mental health problems. This blog is for you. I hope it shows that at least one person cares. When I had mental health problems I needed somebody to care too. I know what it is like to be on the phone to the Samaritans in the small hours. I know what it is like to be bullied at school and emotionally abused by someone who should take care of you. What I also know is that mental health patients are not a costume. So this and every Halloween I implore you to treat them as people, not as your spooktacular theme. You want your zinger marketing idea. I bet you wouldn’t want the mental health problem it mocks now would you idiots? Do better and do better now. We are not your marketing devices; we are human beings. Give us dignity and do better. I hope I never have to write such a blog again. Such blogs fall into the category of stating the bloody obvious. From a writer’s perspective they are the kind of blogs you never want to write, because they remind you that ghoulish voyeurism is still a persistent force in society and as we head towards Halloween I find that depressing, icy and chilling. Think and reflect. What is most chilling is that if Dr Rory Conn’s friend had not photographed the poster the event would have gone ahead and checked and free of scrutiny from Greene King. If that does not stir you from cognitive dissonance nothing will. It really is time to change.

Oh and the costume? You’re wearing it already.

 

Don’t Call Me Crazy: BBC Three (Part 1)

TRIGGER WARNING  Mentions anorexia, mental health, and the misunderstandings around it. Do not read if in an unsafe place emotionally. A link to the first episode ishere, and available for download.

 

 

 

 

 

Let me ask you a question. Out of the two following people who would you feel most sympathy for? A person learning to walk again after an accident and taking 10 steps in 20 minutes, or a girl who managed two sips of a food supplement drink in 20 minutes?

I would bet that there would be some people who would say the former. They would say the first person had an accident, the second one did it to themselves.

This is exactly the kind of attitude and being frank prejudice which “Don’t Call Me Crazy” has been commissioned by BBC Three to address.

We are introduced to 3 of the McGuinness Adolescent Mental Health Unit in Manchester.

We meet Beth who, at the time of filming  has anorexia and self harms. We also meet Gill who is an extreme self harmer, is described as volatile and as we see over the course of the first episode of Don’t Call Me Crazy needs to be restrained by several members of staff at regular intervals.

Lastly we meet Emma, who charts her struggles with OCD in the course of filming.

You can see here too that the staff are walking  a fine line between exercising compassion and understanding the reasons that have brought them to a psychiatric unit, and a desire to maintain the physical health and ultimately help them recover.

In fact the values of the McGuinness unit embody those sadly lacking in society. The patients provide mutual support to one another, as can be seen when they play a game tying each other together with bandages. In this game they have to depend on each other in order that they can move at the right time. We can see that they trust each other and this is heartwarming when you think society has probably rejected them due to their mental health problems.

As Claire one of the senior staff nurses on night duty puts it;

“I often get asked, do you lock them in their bedrooms? No we’re a hospital; we’re nurses. These are just young people going through adolescence which I think is a form of madness at the best of times with a few extra problems on top.”

Educational opportunities and therapy within the unit also provide opportunities for self reflection. To me, the young people at the McGuinness unit seem very clued up about their own mental health, in fact more clued up than the average member of society.

This inside knowledge also means that young people are acutely aware of the stigma surrounding mental health. They talk of how people appropriate their experiences by saying things like “I like things clean, I’ve got OCD!”

However well-meaning such a strategy is misguided. Liking cleanliness is natural. Cleanliness and compulsions mutating into obsessions is not.

For these young people mental illness is debilitating and a hard road. They also talk of the pain they feel at having to justify their mental illness to people which I believe to be and abhorrent thing to have to do. As Emma puts it so eloquently “you wouldn’t ask somebody why they have a cold [and suggest] there’s no reason for them to have it. Nobody should have to do justify their mental illness to anybody. Everyone with a mental illness should be treated with compassion, love and understanding. Yet, I am also acutely aware that the world does not work on the bases of this credo tragically.

Emma contends also that the staff interfering with the belongings in a bedroom will result in something bad happening to her mother. This is how debilitating mental illness can be. It is almost rationalised irrationality.

We then see Beth battling with her body. She could not at the time of filming see that there was something wrong. She resisted intervention even sneaking a Diet Coke into the unit to supplement meals. Saying “just eat!” Is simply not appropriate here. It won’t work and will most likely fall on deaf ears.

Eating disorders are not about food and weight but instead about the feelings food engenders. If your life feels out of control, or going through a period of intense emotional upheaval then food may feel like the only thing you can control. Some people call anorexia ‘the ED voice.’

It’s one of the worst things in the world. It will teach you that everything is always right but the world is in fact wrong. When in the grip of anorexia people believe that not eating will solve problems. Real feelings are endlessly substituted for the word ‘fat’ because real feelings at times feel too painful to face.

When I asked you at the opening of this article which person you felt more sorry for, Beth was the girl I had in mind. The reality of course is that both should be felt sorry for. For it is just as hard for somebody with an eating disorder or recovering to take the first few sips of a meal supplement drink as it is for someone to learn to walk after an accident.

She is matter of fact, showing her lack of food intake as a positive, after remarking that (paraphrasing) a combination of methods are needed to achieve weight loss. This intellectual discourse is a way of distancing from emotional pain.

We should promote greater sensitivity around mental health problems. It pisses me off that in 2013 so many people still don’t get it. That’s why I for one am glad the McGuinness unit opened its doors to television cameras in order to allow fiction and fact to be separated out.

If support and understanding is lacking in mainstream society, it is definitely not lacking in the McGuinness unit. You can see plainly that the place despite the pain is full of love. Patients support each other, transcending the boundaries of their own illnesses to offer unselfish and unconditional support.

You can see this in evidence from the time Gill absconded, through to the collective sadness when somebody leaves. When something happens to one person, it has a domino effect on everybody causing ripples of upset.

There is true community here. It is not the real world but a microcosm of it and when you are segregated from society for your own safety it is all you have. Having lived in communal environments I can appreciate this myself.

What happens there matters. It is keenly felt by all patients. They cannot go anywhere else if they want to get better. There are professionals who care who understand and who want to help.

I don’t think any of the people featured in the first episode or any of the show I am sure are mad or crazy. They are human. If you think otherwise the I put it to you that maybe it is you who needs your head examined.

I’d just like to finish with an anecdote of my own. I was at university I had just been diagnosed with depression, and I was walking home from my GPs surgery in my wheelchair.

I lived opposite a psychiatric hospital. The weather was very cold and there was snow on the ground. I saw three girls walking out of the hospital, probably patients.

“Merry Christmas”, they called. Now it wasn’t even Christmas but I needed a smile so laughed at the absurdity of the situation. They asked me if I was okay and gave me a hug each of them. A long one.

A mental health hug as I like to call it. They are longer than average and seemed warmer and more sincere than the polite social gesture. Fruit loops, my carer muttered. I argued with them when we got back. Those girls did more for me in five minutes after a tough doctor’s appointment that most people do in a lifetime. The irony of mental health problems is that those with them are often the most compassionate in my experience. Maybe we can all learn something from that.


NB I shall be blogging on  the following two episodes also.

We Need To Talk About Mental Health Part 1

 

Yes, we need to have a conversation about mental health. This week, my colleagues at the New Statesman are doing just that. They are shamelessly plundering the sanctuary of their innermost being in the name of awareness.

Seasoned journalists and writers have problems too. We are unashamedly human. Perhaps, I suggest, that is what makes writing powerful and authentic. Sometimes, it feels easier to bear your soul to an audience of thousands than to three friends who are in the same room. Quite paradoxical really isn’t it?

But this paradox is a crucial one in our understanding of mental health, how we codify it, and understand it, and experience it for ourselves. Or even mental non-health too.

You see, in the media, we are often presented with mental health gone wrong.  The thin end of the wedge. Man commits suicide. Girl dies of eating disorder. Or even as I walked through the Underground the other day “delays due to person under train” declared the PA system.

What I was left thinking though was:

Why is that person under the train? How did they get there? What drove them to that?”

I believe it is those searching questions we need to ask much more. We need to be more inquisitive, talk less and listen more.

Why? Simply because, that is what people with mental health problems need. Poignantly though, the reaction people often expect from others is one of fear. After disclosure, a common reaction is to distance oneself from the person who has disclosed the problem to you, mainly out of a fear that they will lose their friendship.

I must insert a trigger warning for the next few paragraphs of this piece. For this was exactly what my friend feared most when they disclosed their eating disorders, anorexia and bulimia to me. We were close, extremely so, in fact, she is probably the one person I have truly loved.

We were close before she told me, and remained so afterwards. We were University flatmates, and she would often come to my room and chat with me. One of those nights, as her hearing aids whistled, she looked up at me earnestly and said;

“I’ve got something to tell you.”

Now as I am sure you will agree, this is a very loaded question. It can be a lead in to so many things, the good, the bad, and the very difficult.

She began to tell me, slowly how she suffered with anorexia, how she felt fat, and how she starved herself, and purged herself of any food she ate. The whole story unfolded over three hours and I can say accurately that I was silent for that time and didn’t even go to the loo.

She then asked me how I felt about it, and I replied;

“Well, it’s not about food and weight it’s about control, something you can control when everything else around you is out of control, or feels that way.”

She also told me numerous times she felt ugly and not beautiful, even though to me she had beauty in abundance.

After I had listened to her though, she told me that she expected me to run away, and not want more to do with her.

Now for me, this sends a huge red flag about mental health. People with mental health problems expect to be deserted and that is not right. Qualified professionals can only do so much, and friendship and kinship have a vital role to play.

Then she asked me why I got it, because most people don’t and I was perplexed. I’ve never been a person who doesn’t understand mental health, and I can’t imagine being such.

I think that eating disorders, and other associated problems are much misunderstood. Of course, the mantra that fat is not a feeling is an oft trumpeted one on eating disorders support website.

However, it is a euphemism for other feelings that feel too frightening to contemplate. It is also a response to an overload of feelings that may be overwhelming.

That said, one can’t just dismiss an eating disorder with a flick of the wrist and say just eat. This is where many people come unstuck. For many sufferers of eating disorders, eating is equivalent to the process of climbing Mount Everest.

In the end though, you may wonder why this matters to me. I care because through my disability, I understand what it is like to be trapped in a body you may not like, and I understand self loathing as well as self love.

I think that society treats people with mental health problems with an extreme lack of compassion. Sadly, you receive more sympathy for a broken leg than you do for a broken soul.

An understanding of mental health issues is a very un-British thing. In a society which privileges the stiff upper lip over disclosure, this increases the stigma over mental health problems. I say to everyone, mental health problems are nothing to be ashamed of and they do not make you a bad person. They are just a part of you and can be dealt with and managed, even if not eradicated.

The media needs to explode some myth bombs around mental health and I am delighted the New Statesman has grasped this nettle. Yes, maybe the news hooks aren’t there, but for once I just say, who cares?

For many people, mental health is not news. Instead it is the ongoing reality of their everyday life. We need to talk about mental health, and we need to talk about it now. Journalism must reflect this also.